Rookie's Indy 500 win taken to new heights

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS - The storied line of bricks at the start-finish of Indianapolis Motor Speedway has felt a lot of cars rumble over its old red clay, but it had never felt the bounce of a driver's two feet leaping onto it in jubilation after jumping from his car.

Not until yesterday.

Not until rookie Helio Castroneves, the surprise winner of the 85th Indianapolis 500, pulled his car to a stop at the line, struggled out of his cockpit and leaped out on his way to the wire catch fence that separates the crowd from the racetrack.

Castroneves bounded to the fence and climbed, waving in triumph at the crowd. He waved exuberantly to his Roger Penske crew, who avoided slowing cars to cross the track and climb the fence with him to share the unmitigated joy.

"Unbelievable, well, believable, I am here," Castroneves said. "I wanted to share the experience with everyone. I just wanted to share my feelings."

He also shared his feelings with the bricks, kneeling down and kissing them after climbing down.

Castroneves got the lead under caution with a great pit stop on Lap 148, but there was nothing cautious about the rookie's post-race celebration.

Only the eighth rookie to win the 500, but the second straight, he averaged 153.601 mph in his Dallara-Oldsmobile and pulled away for a definitive, 1.73-second victory over teammate Gil de Ferran.

Michael Andretti finished third, 5.73 seconds back. Tony Stewart, the Winston Cup driver who was pulling double duty yesterday, leaving here to fly to Charlotte, N.C., for last night's Coca-Cola 600 Winston Cup race, finished sixth.

Castroneves' celebration didn't end with kissing bricks. From there, it was back into the car for a victory lap and then to victory lane. There, he was reminded that he had said he was tired of "kissing" the Turn 1 wall here (he brushed it more than once during practice) and wanted only to kiss girls.

He smiled broadly.

"Here we go ... I'm waiting, girls!" said the 26-year-old bachelor. "I'm the winner of the race."

And then he was handed a bottle of cold milk, an Indy tradition for the winner.

"I've dreamed of this," he said, then took a drink and poured the rest over his head.

It was an Indianapolis 500 celebration like no one could remember. The exuberance born from a dream held deep in Castroneves' heart spilled over. At the age of 13, he had been mesmerized by the 1989 duel between Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, which fellow Brazilian Fittipaldi won.

"Kids were watching that race all over Brazil. And we all knew that he had won at least a million dollars. He was rich," said Castroneves, who then turned to his car owner, Roger Penske. "And I guess I'm rich now, too."

For his victory, Castroneves won $1,270,475.

Penske has been rich for a long time, but the last time he was at Indy, he left an emotionally depleted man. From 1969 to 1994, his teams earned a record 10 victories. But in 1995, not one of Penske's three cars made the starting lineup.

"When I think of today, my cars finishing one-two, it has taken away the sting of 1995," he said. "I can tell you the difference between walking back to the garage with Al [Unser Jr.] and Emerson that day in '95 and today, walking to victory lane is a big difference.

"I've had a lot of victories, but I think this one is the best. We redeemed ourselves. This is really the greatest day of my life."

At the start of the day, it was anyone's guess whose day it would be. Nearly everyone in the garage area agreed the field was the most competitive, with more teams than ever having a real chance at victory.

But when the race started, it looked as if it would be the driver who was the luckiest who would survive.

In the first turn of the first lap, pole-sitter Scott Sharp lost control of his car, as his cold tires failed to grip the cold track when he went low. He got down in the grass, got loose and shot up across the speedway in front of de Ferran, Robby Gordon and Greg Ray and slammed hard into the outside wall.

"I don't even know how to begin to explain it," said Sharp. "I feel sorry for all the guys on my team who have worked so hard. To throw it away like that - it's crazy."

It was the first of three wrecks in the first 17 laps that eliminated Sarah Fisher and Scott Goodyear on Lap 7 and Sam Hornish and Unser Jr. on Lap 17.

"The problem is we're not up to speed and can't maneuver quick enough to get out of the way," said Unser. "That's about it."

Goodyear was the only driver hurt in the crashes, but his was a serious injury. He was admitted to Methodist Hospital with a fractured lower back.

The more than 335,000 fans finally saw a circuit of green flag racing on Lap 23, when Ray passed Gordon for the lead. It was the first of 13 lead changes among eight drivers in a race that rain delayed once and stopped once.

Castroneves had several opportunities to let circumstances take him out of his race. On Lap 136, he swung his car too wide, leaving his pit stall and saw officials wave Stewart past him and into the lead. Robbie Buhl closed on him relentlessly and looked about to make a pass for the lead when Buhl lost control and spun out of Turn 2.

"I thought it was only a matter of time before Robbie passed Helio," said de Ferran. "I thought when he did, he'd just check out. There would have been no catching him."

De Ferran apparently thought the same might be true of his own chances. And on the Lap 172 restart after Buhl's spin, he attempted to pass Castroneves on the outside.

"I got it just right and tried to go around," said de Ferran. "But you can't pinch a guy down in the grass. My car started to push, push, push when I got beside him, so I couldn't get on the power like I needed to pass him, and I had to back off."

Castroneves, still smiling more than two hours after the victory, said it was all a matter of a learning curve.

"I talked to Rick Mears, to Al Unser, to Tony Bettenhausen, all champions at Indy, and I listened to every word they told me," he said. "All said different things, but all of them said just be patient and wait. In 500 miles, everything will happen to you. Be very cool. Very calm. And that's what I tried to do.

"When Tony was put in front of me, when Robbie challenged me and when Gil was beside me, I just tried to be very consistent. You know, this is my first oval win, so I have a lot more to learn still. But I think I showed a little of what I have learned already."

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